Category: Artists

Poster Design: The Posters of Akiko Stehrenberger

One my great passions is poster art, as anyone who knows me is well aware. I love the combination of illustration, advertising, referential imagery, typography, and stylistic variety I see in so many posters for film, tv, bands, and events. One of the biggest downsides to being interested in poster design is that so often artists are not credited for their work- I’m often lucky if I can make out a small signature to go by, especially on older designs. With a lot of independent films turning to illustrators and fine artists for their posters, it’s even more disappointing this is so frequently happens today. Gorgeous movie posters are unveiled and few press releases or film news sites include artist names unless it’s a Mondo release or some big name. Since I want to write about poster designers on here anyway, I’m going to start highlighting artists whose work is likely familiar to filmgoers but whose names might not be as known. I’m starting with an easy one because there’s already been some articles written about her, and because I absolutely love her work: Akiko Stehrenberger.

I first became aware of Stehrenberger as an artist through her breathtaking poster for Kiss of the Damned, which honestly stopped me in my tracks. It’s the kind of poster that makes me rethink how the film’s trailer looked terrible. It’s the kind of poster I’d be happy to have on my wall regardless of whether I’d enjoyed or even seen the film. It is, in short, a damn good poster. And I immediately wanted to know more about its designer. Originally based in New York, Stehrenberger began her career doing magazine illustration. When she moved back to Los Angeles in 2004 she started designing movie posters, though she has also worked in advertising, toy design, and portraiture. As an artist she has been devoted to hand-drawn illustration, often rendering posters in paint and graphite, but she has become equally adept at digital production. Her style is incredibly diverse, but is perhaps most distinguished by a free use of color, spare use of text, figural subjects,  and incorporation of freehand visual details.

akiko-stehrenberger-funnygamesAkiko Stehrenberger: Funny Games, 2007. via IMPAwards

One of Stehrenberger’s most high-profile designs to date is her poster for Michael Haneke’s 2007 remake of Funny Games. She pulled a screenshot depicting a frightened Naomi Watts in close-up, and turned it into a photorealistic digital painting. It is the perfect moment to capture from the film: the character is obviously scared and pained, with teary eyes and unkempt hair, but there is a hint of defiance in her expression that relates to the progression of the story. The image is clouded with noise, nearly disguising the fact that this is in fact a digital painting and not a simple film still- perhaps a subtle reference to Haneke’s essential copying of himself in remaking his own film, or to the inherent artifice of film as a medium. The type is simple and direct, allowing the illustration to do most of the work, aided by the fantastically chilling tagline, “You must admit, you brought this on yourself.” Cited as her personal favorite of her designs, Stehrenberger says, “I fought really, really hard for Funny Games to come out the way it did. I don’t think I ever fought harder for any of my designs. The client kept wanting to add something to it, like a gloved hand, or blood, and I believed strongly that it was strong enough and haunting on its own” (Mubi: Movie Poster of the Week interview).

As much as I love the bold, disturbing visual of the Funny Games poster, it’s generally her more colorful, playful work to which I’m drawn. Her work for The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology–a film I haven’t seen and admittedly don’t know much about–is a psychedelic portrait of philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek. Rendered in vibrant pink and purple ink, his gruff personage is surrounded by religious and military figures, rainbow bridges, rolling green fields, cowboys, and lovers. The composition presents a strange, varied, eclectic documentary, referencing politics, Hollywood, 1960s counter-culture, and Christianity in its visual sources and color scheme: appropriate for a movie about how media reinforces certain belief systems. The style recalls hand-drawn indie band gig posters while bringing in allusions to Socialist Realism and Soviet design. I absolutely love the inky, freehand lines and garish colors, it’s just a really appealing image.

Akiko Stehrenberger - Pervert's Guide to IdeologyAkiko Stehrenberger: The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, 2012. via IMPAwards

Akiko Stehrenberger is committed to maintaining a level of artistry and innovation in the poster industry. She does the kind of work that got me excited about poster design in the first place, the kind of eye-catching, referential, detailed visuals that don’t just sell a film but really sell themselves. Over the past decade she has created several memorable designs for indie films (she prefers independent over studio movies because she generally has more creative control), and regardless of the films’ quality I can always view her posters as autonomous works of art. I especially love the painterly approach she takes to most of her works, even her digital designs, as it is reminiscent of the great illustrated posters of the pre-digital age. Of her work’s unique place in the greater scheme of things, she says, “I’d be lying if I said it was my intention to try to change the industry when I first got into it. My main goal was to do work I was proud of and eventually people started appreciating it and asking for more of it. Leaving a small influence and getting to work with some of the best creative directors in this industry, is just the cherry on top!” (Japan Cinema interview).

Incidentally, Stehrenberger is also one of the few female designers who’s really made a name for herself in the typically male-dominated field, and I just think that’s really cool.

akiko-stehrenberger-casa-de-mi-padrejpgAkiko Stehrenberger: Casa de mi Padre, 2012. via IMPAwards

fathers_day_ver2_xlgAkiko Stehrenberger: Father’s Day, 2012. via IMPAwards

12_awaywego_planeAkiko Stehrenberger: Away We Go, 2009. via H Represents

akikomatic_herAkiko Stehrenberger: Her, 2014. via H Represents

akiko_undertheskin-hrepresents-comAkiko Stehrenberger: Under the Skin, 2014. via H Represents

Akiko Stehrenberger - Code UnknownAkiko Stehrenberger: Code Unknown, 2000. Blu-ray cover. via H Represents

blue_ruin_ver3_xxlgAkiko Stehrenberger: Blue Ruin, 2014. via IMPAwards

Akiko Stehrenberger - Kiss of the DamnedAkiko Stehrenberger: Kiss of the Damned, 2013. via IMPAwards

28_seriousman2Akiko Stehrenberger: A Serious Man, 2009. via H Represents


Akikomatic. Akiko Stehrenberger’s official site.

Adrian Curry. “Movie Poster of the Week: An Interview with ‘Funny Games’ Poster Designer Akiko Stehrenberger.”, 2010.

Creative Spotlight: Episode #199 – Akiko Stehrenberger.” Japan Cinema, 2013.

Exhibitions: “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010” at MoMA NYC

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Untitled, 1975. via Gallerist

Ever since I read my first X-Men comic and fell in love with the fuzzy German mutant Nightcrawler, I’ve been interested in German language and culture. Some people find it surprising that such a silly, kitschy thing spurred a passion that became academic, as I made twentieth-century German art and culture one of my specialties in school, and even studied there for a semester in undergrad. Today I’m feeling that the comic book connection would have been appreciated by the artist at hand, irreverent Pop and experimental kitsch genius Sigmar Polke, whose first full retrospective is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Raised in East Germany before escaping to the West as a teenager, Polke worked at a stained glass factory before embarking on a career as a fine artist in the early 60s. He studied at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf under influential conceptualist Joseph Beuys, but did not follow in his teacher’s mystical/political/high-concept footsteps.

Along with painter Gerhard Richter and others, he helped establish the genre of “Capitalist Realism”, an offshoot of the ubiquitous Pop Art style so common in the United States in the 1960s. Their art was made in response to the so-called “Economic Miracle” that had affected Germany in the 1950s, a sudden time of plenty after years of scarcity, leading to gluttonous consumerism and a seeming rush to forget the horrors of World War II. The rising generation of German artists often used their work to criticize the “Americanization” of their country and the frivolous lifestyle it promoted, while also seeking to come to terms with the guilt and shame of their parents’ generation and its actions under Nazi leadership. Like many Pop artists, Polke engaged with food and brand imagery, as well as department stores and Hollywood-style glamor, referencing this extreme shift in West German experience (felt especially keenly as someone who had lived in East Germany). However, the trajectory of his artistic practice became much more dynamic and varied than these early Pop works might suggest, as he spent the next several decades pushing style, media, and subject beyond their expected limits.


Sigmar Polke SchokoladenbildSigmar Polke: Chocolate Painting, 1964. via Aesthetic Perspectives

Sigmar Polke SupermarketsSigmar Polke: Supermarkets, 1976. via Hot Parade

At MoMA, hundreds of Polke’s works are collected together in a comprehensive retrospective, highlighting the artist’s versatility and various experiments. Visitors are first met with his works in the atrium, which shows off an eclectic grouping of painting, sculpture, film, and mixed media. From there, it launches into a chronological organization so that his development can be traced through the years. I get why the show is arranged this way, but it did feel kind of uninspired. There is no linear progression for Polke, he was all over the place, which allows his work to be shown in any number of ways (indeed, before he died in 2010, he had suggested a non-chronological layout for this show while it was still in the planning stages). Perhaps an exhibit that instead highlighted certain subjects he returned to, or processes, or media, or even color schemes. Not a major criticism of the show, just something I thought about as I walked through the galleries.

His variety can be overwhelming, and instead of finding a way around that curator Kathy Halbreich seems to have embraced it. This show is packed, throwing together all aspects of his output, from his home videos and sketchbooks to his wall-size canvases and photo series. And it’s great. Admittedly, because he worked in so many different styles and materials, not every work is a masterpiece, but they’re all interesting, and they all have a story behind them. Each gallery’s wall text briefly introduces a certain stage in Polke’s life- including his world travels in the 70s, his stint in New York, his many collaborations (often with the lovers he took besides his wife), his responses to current events and political happenings. However, most of the expository text is found within a booklet that visitors carry around, which details each work (there are no wall labels) and often gives extra information and anecdotes. With Polke, context means a lot. His works are often beautiful and weird and fascinating all on their own, but knowing their connection to German history and Western art history can make a big difference, as can knowing their place in his biography.

Sigmar Polke Lee Harvey OswaldSigmar Polke: Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald), 1963. via Gallerist

Sigmar Polke FreundinnenSigmar Polke: Girlfriends, 1965/66. via Frieder Burda Museum

His series of “Raster” paintings, for example, might at first glance seem like riffs on Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book recreations, but they were actually made in response to contemporary media coverage of events in the Middle East. Polke felt that people in the West were somewhat phony for dramatically expressing their horror at the news, while only ever experiencing it through printed photographs. For these works, he meticulously painted and screenprinted the black and colored dots used in newspaper printing, forcing us to view their subjects (lifted from mass media sources) through a distorted, distanced lens. We cannot experience these subjects first hand. Few of Polke’s works make overt political statements, but many of them engage indirectly with specific issues or concerns, whether in their subversion of art historical references (take, for example, his graph-objects meant to establish a psychic connection with William Blake or his wry dig at Abstract Expressionism titled “Modern Art”) or their dispassionate iconography (such as his repeated use of swastikas in cartoonish compositions and his series of watchtower paintings on fabric).

Polke is a ridiculously difficult artist to summarize, and that’s part of what makes him and his work so fantastic. I have always loved him for his use of printed fabrics as canvas, his gestural abstraction, his abundant irreverence, his printmaking experiments; MoMA expands even further into all manner of his practices, introducing me to his films (which J. Hoberman detailed in May’s issue of Artforum) and his forays into weird materials like uranium and his psychedelic side-trips (in a loud, over-stimulated gallery that I quite liked) and his pornographic caricatures and so much more. Many commentators have noted that this feels like a group show because of the great variety of works, and I think that feel really works in its favor. Realizing that all of this came from the mind of one man encourages viewers to consider that man- how did all of these eclectic and diverse ideas and styles come together in the singular artist of Sigmar Polke? It’s a question that cannot be easily answered, but Alibis is a good start. Luckily, his wonderful work can speak for itself.

sigmar polke modern artSigmar Polke: Modern Art, 1968. via Gallerist

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Dr. Berlin, 1969-74. via Ross Smirnoff Art

Sigmar Polke Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), 1974-1978Sigmar Polke: Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), 1974-1978. via AF Asia

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Mu nieitnam netorruprup, 1975. via Ross Smirnoff Art

Sigmar PolkeSigmar Polke: Untitled (Dr. Bonn), 1978. via Vogue

Polke Velocitas FirmitudoSigmar Polke: Untitled (Color Experiments), 1982-86 (bottom row). Velocitas-Firmitudo, 1986 (top right). via Hyperallergic

sigmar polke watchtowerSigmar Polke: Watchtower, 1984. via Vogue

Sigmar Polke Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, 1991Sigmar Polke: Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, 1991. via AF Asia

sigmar polkeSigmar Polke: Salamander Stone, 1997. via Vogue

Art: The Wire Sculpture of Ruth Asawa

Ruth AsawaRuth Asawa at work, 1957. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham. via The Huffington Post

I stumbled across a photograph of Ruth Asawa a few months ago on tumblr, and was embarrassed I’d never heard of her before. She seems like exactly the type of artist I should know about, but then I guess it’s indicative of the ever-exclusionary “canon” I’ve studied in school and am continually trying to break away from. Asawa was a Japanese-American artist who led a fascinating life, and forged a successful art career out of her own ingenuity, diligence, and focus. She was born in 1926 to Japanese immigrant parents, farmers in Southern California who were not allowed to own land (or become citizens) due to their background, but worked to establish a business on leased farmland. As a child, Asawa was encouraged to pursue her love of drawing, studying art in public school and calligraphy in a Japanese school on weekends, while also learning Kendo from her father. In 1942 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Asawa was 16, her family was forcibly placed in an internment camp- first in California, then in Arkansas (though her father was separated and held in New Mexico). She was able to take drawing and painting classes during her time there, with teachers that included interned Japanese artists from Disney Studios.

In 1943, Asawa was allowed to attend college, but only in the Midwest, so she attended Milwaukee State Teachers College because it was the cheapest one available. As a Japanese student, she was somewhat limited in her movements, but she was able to visit Mexico City with her sister, where she was inspired by the bright colors as well as the materiality of fresco painting. When she returned to Milwaukee, she realized that she could not complete her teaching degree- she could not get a teaching credit because none of the surrounding schools would hire a Japanese American. In 1946, without a job, without money, and without a degree, she headed out to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. This legendary school was an experimental arts community, whose freeform program and influential teachers (including Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Lustig, John Cage, and Walter Gropius) helped develop a generation of artists in the 1930s-60s. There Asawa studied design with Josef Albers, but she was encouraged to experiment with new media, eventually creating a technique for looped wire sculpture (inspired by crocheted baskets she learned to make in Mexico) that was to become her hallmark.

asawa-dancers-1946-47Ruth Asawa: Dancers, 1946-47. An example of her early work at Black Mountain. My scan.

Ruth Asawa's living roomAl Lanier (asleep on couch) and Ruth Asawa in their living room, 1970s. Photograph by Laurence Cuneo. via SuperRadNow

Asawa met her husband, architect Al Lanier, in 1947 at Black Mountain, and the two married and moved to San Francisco in 1949. From then on, she devoted her life equally to making art and raising a family- six children in all, which sounds exhausting, but it sounds like they made it work. She continued making looped wire sculpture, and began exhibiting in San Francisco and other American cities. By the 1960s she was receiving commissions for public sculptures, which she continued to design throughout her life. She also experimented with twisted wire forms inspired by desert plants, resulting in spiky metal sculptures, and ran a lithography workshop in Los Angeles. As she established herself more as an artist, she worked to bring art into local schools and supported small arts organizations. Many of her public pieces were group projects produced within their respective communities. Asawa died in 2013 at the age of 87, leaving behind a rich legacy of sculpture and public art spaces in California, though she remains lesser known outside of her home state. It seems her blend of craft techniques and high art ideas made her hard to categorize. She didn’t receive her first retrospective until 2006, at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

asawa_untitled_1_Ruth Asawa: Untitled, 1950s. via SuperRadNow

Ruth AsawaRuth Asawa: Various sculptures. Photographed by Imogen Cunningham. via The Huffington Post

What I love about Asawa’s wire sculpture is how unassuming it is, and yet how formidable. Her forms are large and dominant, but also open and mutable. She takes cold, hard metals and coaxes them into warm, pliant, organic shapes. There is a certain improvisational feel to them, as the eye travels down to see how different shapes are created and changed through continuous looping or twisting, and their connection to craft techniques gives them an ambiguous familiarity despite their fantastical scope. They are reliant on their relationship to space, suspended in the air, casting shadows across various walls that are as interesting to the eye as the pieces themselves. Curator Daniell Cornell links this proclivity to Asawa’s teacher Josef Albers, who taught his students to “think in terms of figure-ground relationships” and focus on negative space- for her sculpture, specifically the gaps created between objects and lines. The artist herself has also traced this mode of thought back to her study of calligraphy as a child, where she was taught “to look at the space that we don’t touch. The form in calligraphy, the form is the space around the letter–that we leave white–as much as the character” (quoted in The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa, 138). Over time she came to view them as cohesive groupings as opposed to individual works, anticipating strides in installation art to come decades later. Her forms interact with and complement one another brilliantly, blending interior and exterior with shadow and light in pleasing optical illusions. For Cornell, “When installed together… they engage viewers by animating and defining the space around them with an ineffable quality” (The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa, 145).

In her time, Asawa’s work was often viewed within the context of her gender and ethnicity, as critics and curators tried to group her with certain movements and ideas. To some, she represented the perceived simplicity and sparseness of East Asian culture, its softness and quietude. To others, she was a craftswoman whose work could be categorized as pretty and fragile, not meeting any kind of intellectual need but relegated to domestic decoration. Of course, this type of response is not particularly relevant: though her personality and creative output were naturally influenced by her experience (as all artists somehow are), the specifics of her background do not affect the impact of her work on the viewer. And yet, it seems she has been left out of the discussion of American artists working in the 1950s-60s (and beyond) both because of her identities and despite them- she doesn’t fit into the (male-dominated) Abstract Expressionist group, nor the experimental avant-garde embraced by her female Japanese peers Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama, nor the outwardly feminist groups who arose in the late 1960s. As a woman of color, Asawa is already on the fringes in terms of her inclusion in general art history texts, but without a certain movement to lump her in with, there’s not much hope she’ll be given the attention she deserves. Though I’m optimistic this oversight will change over time.


Ruth Asawa - printed cork endsRuth Asawa: Printed Cork Ends, 1950s. via California Fibers

Ruth AsawaRuth Asawa: Various sculptures installed at the De Young Museum. via YedOmi

asawa-desertplant-1965Ruth Asawa: Desert Plant, 1965. Lithograph. My scan.

ruth-asawa-untitled, 1969Ruth Asawa: Untitled, 1969. via That Creative Feeling

"Aurora" by Ruth Asawa, 1986Ruth Asawa: Aurora, 1986. Fountain installed at Bayside Plaza. via Rarelywrongerin


Addie Lanier and Peter Weverka. Ruth Asawa.

The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air. Edited by Daniell Cornell. University of California Press, 2006.

Art: The Remarkable Life of Romaine Brooks

Romain Brooks - Self PortraitRomaine Brooks: Self-Portrait, 1923. via Thought Patterns

Like many, I was first struck by Romaine Brooks through her remarkable 1923 self-portrait, which hangs in the National Gallery (though I’ve only seen it in reproductions). She depicts herself in somewhat androgynous dress, a dark suit and top hat, staring directly at the viewer but with eyes partly shaded. She presents an air of mystery, and of confidence, and of a woman who likely led a singularly fascinating life. And indeed she did. For a project in grad school I was assigned a comparative book review on any American artist or movement, and I immediately chose Romaine Brooks. Reading the three main texts I could find on her- Between Me and Life by Meryle Secrest, Amazons in the Drawing Room by Whitney Chadwick, and Wild Girls by Diana Souhami- I assembled as complete a biography as I could, while of course greedily perusing her wonderful but all-too-small oeuvre.

Remembered primarily for her compelling portraits of fashionable intellectuals living in Paris in the early twentieth century, Romaine Brooks was a fascinating character and an idiosyncratic artist. Though she was little known to new audiences by the time of her death in 1970, since then her work and life have been gradually re-discovered and re-assessed by contemporary scholars- especially in light of feminist and queer theory.

romaine brooks2Romaine Brooks: Dame en Deuil, 1910. via It’s About Time

Romaine BrooksRomaine Brooks: Chasseresse, 1920. via Smithsonian American Art Museum

She was born Beatrice Romaine Goddard in 1874 to American heiress Ella Waterman Goddard and Major Harry Goddard, the last of three children. Her parents separated shortly afterward and for much of her childhood she was ferried about Europe by her restless mother. Ella Goddard was herself an eccentric personality: exacting impossible demands on servants, writing demonic poetry, attempting to communicate with spirits, and (by Brooks’s account) emotionally abusing her youngest daughter. Goddard’s only son, St. Mar, was physically and emotionally unstable, experiencing terrifying hallucinations, violent outbursts, and debilitating illnesses. According to Brooks, her mother lavished attention on St. Mar and scorned Romaine (little seems to be documented of her other daughter, Maya), and at one point she even gave the young Romaine up to a poor washerwoman in New York City until she was reclaimed by her grandfather. Brooks claimed to have no happy memories of her childhood, which was a combination of travels with her unpredictable family and stays in strict religious boarding schools, where her sexual attraction to women first manifested itself. She was even forced to stay at an Italian convent for a short time as a teenager.

Emotionally disconnected from her family and fiercely independent, Brooks sought to sever ties with her mother and forge a life of her own when she reached young adulthood. For a time she studied singing in Paris, but soon decided to develop her artistic talent, which had long manifested itself in sketches and caricatures. She achieved a kind of semi-freedom by rejecting Ella Goddard’s influence and plans to make her a society wife, but still relied on her mother’s small monthly stipend for her living. In 1896 she studied art in Rome (where, as the only female student, she was sexually harassed by her classmates) and later took classes at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. She scraped by on her allowance and some painting sales, summering in Capri because of its cheaper cost and supportive community of artists, writers, and homosexuals. Her brother died in 1901 and her mother less than a year after, and suddenly Brooks was an enormously wealthy property owner, inheriting multiple houses and apartments along with a portion of her family’s estate.

Romaine Brooks - Ida RubinsteinRomaine Brooks: La Trajet, 1900. via Melissa Huang

Romaine Brooks - Ida Rubinstein2Romaine Brooks: Ida Rubinstein, 1917. via Smithsonian American Art Museum

Financially independent for the first time in her life, Brooks set about creating prime conditions for fully realizing her artistic talent. In an effort to avoid more sexual harassment and attain an air of social normalcy she married her friend John Brooks, a gay scholar she knew from Capri. To her surprise, despite their chaste relationship he expected her to play the part of a domesticated society wife, and she left him after suffering his controlling impulses for a year. After spending time alone at St. Ives in Britain in 1904, she developed the palette of grays and understated tones that dominate most of her subsequent paintings. Her first solo exhibition took place at the Galeries Durand-Ruel in 1910. For the next several decades, Brooks became a mainstay in a certain Parisian scene of wealthy homosexuals and prominent intellectuals.

Not reliant on selling her work to make a living, she chose whom she wanted to paint and rarely let her sitters take their portraits home, so attached was Brooks to her art. Her portraits of friends and associates reflect the vibrant social circles in which she moved, from famed Russian ballet dancer Ida Rubenstein and concert pianist Renata Borgatti, to French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau and Italian poet and war hero Gabriele D’Annunzio. After various affairs and romances with other women (and, briefly, D’Annunzio), Brooks met American writer and socialite Natalie Barney in 1915 when she was forty-one years old. They formed an intense and often dramatic bond, remaining each other’s most significant companion until Brooks died. They built a special house that had separate living quarters but adjoining communal space, so Brooks could maintain her independence (she preferred spending time alone) but they could still share a life together.

Romaine Brooks - Peter a Young GirlRomaine Brooks: Peter (A Young English Girl), 1924. via Melissa Huang

Romaine Brooks - Renata-Borgatti-Au-Piano-1920Romaine Brooks: Renata Borgatti, Au Piano, 1920. via SVLSTG Magazine

Romaine Brooks - Una TroubridgeRomaine Brooks: Una, Lady Troubridge, 1924. via Weimar

Moving between France, Italy, and sometimes the United States, Brooks took advantage of her wealth and status, painting at will, experimenting with abstract line drawing, and writing an intimate memoir, No Pleasant Memories, that has remained unpublished. Barney supported her art and writing, using her influence to place some of Brooks’s paintings into prominent museums and galleries. During World War II they lived together in Italy and withstood air raids and shortages. Strangely, they both shared some fascistic views, presumably the result of their privileged upbringing and friendship with Italian nationalist D’Annunzio. As Brooks grew older she became more and more misanthropic, cutting herself off from much of the outside world and even shutting Barney out in the very last years of her life. When she was about 65 she became convinced she was going blind, and her hypochondria increased to the point of paranoia. She painted very little in her final decades, and as many in her once-prominent social circle passed away her artistic relevance seemed to dwindle. She died in Nice in 1970, at the age of 96.

Romaine Brooks was, without question, a fascinating person. She was a painter of great skill and individuality, and her portraits reveal a personal belief in independence and self-realization that she maintained throughout her life. She was also a skilled writer and even a some-time interior decorator (always sticking to black and white decor, of course). She defied convention in many ways, living alone as a young woman in Paris and Capri, studying to be a professional artist in a male-dominated field, living outwardly as a lesbian in a less-than-tolerant society, and, above all, always staying true to her own will. Her personality could be brittle, dismissive, and neurotic, but she shared a great love with Natalie Barney, along with various romantic and platonic relationships with other writers, artists, and intellectuals.

Romaine Brooks Romaine Brooks. via The Red List

Romaine Brooks and Natalie BarneyRomaine Brooks and Natalie Barney, 1936. via Deviates, Inc

Ultimately it is her work itself that leaves the most significant legacy- her paintings are cool and distant, at times slightly humorous and at others sexually charged. She depicts her sitters as lone thinkers, perhaps gazing inward or looking to the past, swathed in delicate subtleties of gray. I find her color palette addictive, and have semi-consciously taken to wearing and drawing in shades of gray more often since immersing myself in her work. At the time her style was unexpected, so contrary to the bright colors of popular movements like Fauvism and Expressionism or the experimental shapes of Cubism and Surrealism, and her androgynous nudes and cross-dressing women were not common subjects. Several of her works reveal a subversion of the gaze, for she paints women’s bodies with both the understanding of them and the desire for them- this is especially clear in her nudes of Ida Rubinstein, her muse and lover in the 1910s. Though their color schemes are subdued, these paintings are generally a celebration of Brooks’s social environment, and an important glimpse into the artistic lesbian community of Paris in the early twentieth century. A lot of her paintings are now in the Smithsonian’s collection, though they don’t tend to keep many on view. I hope to see at least one in real life someday.


Whitney Chadwick. Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks. University of California Press, 2000.

Meryle Secrest. Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks. Doubleday, 1974.

Diana Souhami. Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art. The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004.

Exhibitions: Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg at ICA Boston

djurberg-glass6Nathalie Djurberg: A World of Glass, 2011. Installation view. All photos by the author.

When I heard that one of the newer exhibits at the Institute of Contemporary Art would feature stop-motion animation, I was pretty damned excited. Basically all I ever want in any visual entertainment is stop-motion animation, for real. But that description is only scratching the surface of Nathalie Djurberg’s work, produced in conjunction with her partner, Hans Berg, a composer. Djurberg combines elements of installation, sculpture, video, and sound to create her immersive room-size works, the newest of which is titled A World of Glass. For this piece, viewers enter an enclosed dark room lined with several rows of long tables, upon which rest hosts of small translucent sculpture- resembling glass but actually rendered in polyurethane. On all four walls are projected four different films, short claymation stories featuring violent and sexual interactions between humans and animals. Over the presentation Hans Berg’s eerie, ethereal soundscape plays, establishing a quiet, strange mood throughout.

Born in Sweden and now based in Berlin, Djurberg is known for her bizarre, surreal imagery and unexpected pairings of sex and violence. Scholar Nancy Princenthal sees her compositions as examinations of human and animal relationships “both from the point of view of humanity’s inherent bestiality–understood, conventionally, to mean our lust, hunger, viciousness–and from the perspective of our physical domination” (The Reckoning, 90). Her figures are crude and colorful, taking on a kind of naive look in their imperfect, thumbprinted surfaces and exaggerated facial features. In previous installations, Djurberg has created mid-size sculptures in the same style as her animated characters, as in The Parade (exhibited at the Walker in 2011). For A World of Glass, she casts household objects and kitchenwares into unreal glass-like sculptures. Viewers walk among the long tables on which they stand unguarded, treading carefully for fear of smashing them into pieces. The irony is, of course, that they are not actually glass but polyurethane, thick and sturdy despite their appearance of fragility. They are detailed and a little strange, some misshapen and even lumpen, others perfect in their recreation, all slightly aglow in the darkened space.

djurberg-glass1Nathalie Djurberg: A World of Glass, 2011. Installation view.

djurberg-glass2Nathalie Djurberg: A World of Glass, 2011. Installation view.

I like these devious little sculptures, but I’m really there for the animation, which is itself captivating, and decidedly off-putting. In one film, a naked woman is melting like butter, both helped and hindered by the advances of a large bull who attempts to lick her back into shape. In another, a naked man wrestles with crocodiles and hippos that snap their jaws in anticipation of a meal, but when he dons a red fox-like mask he seems to gain the upper hand and their battle starts to resemble an orgy. In the third, a black woman (whose features resemble a caricature, but I’m not sure if that was intentional or if it’s just the result of Djurberg’s cartoonish style) sits in a room made of ice, surrounded by various animals. She continually catches herself in a large bear trap, and the animals can only help her escape by chewing off her appendages. In the final film, a furry bison attempts to remain still in a room full of glass objects (echoing the sculptures in the gallery), but eventually knocks over several shelves and they all shatter.

djurberg-glass5Nathalie Djurberg: I am a Wild Animal, 2011.

djurberg-glass3Nathalie Djurberg: My Body is a House of Glass, 2011.

The animation is somewhat stuttery and artificial, intentionally revealing strings and armatures, never fully committing to the films’ own fantasies despite their attention to detail. I find Djurberg’s imagery frightening but captivating, confusing but thought-provoking. She has noted that a formative experience for her was when a fellow student showed a hardcore porn film to her biology class. She was twelve. The apparent juxtaposition of childlike innocence with pornographic content is central to her videos on view in A World of Glass. The characters shift between victims and aggressors multiple times, and no one appears to maintain control of their situation. The women seem to find equal parts delight and discomfort in their own sexual liberation. There is pleasure and pain, creation and destruction, humor and horror, color and darkness, and a lot of weirdness. I find the work as a whole wonderfully original, but also unsettling. Which may well be the artist’s intention. Curator Anna Stothart concludes:

“Trespassing the border between good and evil, this remarkable and unsettling work updates the traditional folktale and suggests that the hierarchies and distinctions that uphold societal organization are simply a response to the voracious, and amoral, demands of our so-called animal nature. While the lessons of A World of Glass are patently unclear, the installation invites us into an alternate world in which can confront aspects of our own desires and demons.”


Flowers & Mushrooms. Ed. Toni Stooss. Hirmer Publishers, 2014.

Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, and Sue Scott. The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium. Prestel, 2013.

Anna Stothart. Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg: A World of Glass. Exhibition Booklet. Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2014.